Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Mass Communication and Media Arts
Amidst the public’s declining trust in news, media prosumers—that is, media consumers who have also become producers of mediated texts—are not equipped with any credible alternative mechanism to better understand the world around them. Prior academic studies of news and its delivery have not adequately explored the ideological framework we need to confront this frightening situation. This dissertation does so. I problematize the narration of news as an aesthetic process. Such mass-mediated narration stitches together our world in ideological ways. A tidal flow of stories highlights and obscures selected truths in a frenzy of “new” news cycles, the frequency of which intensifies with each new delivery platform. Social media platforms, which peddle short videos, need to be understood using new analytical methods, given that the aesthetic and narrative dimensions of such audio-visual texts are so far removed from the pace, delivery, and meaning of 19th-century objects like newspapers. In the current moment, I theorize the process through which an incident is converted first into a media event, then a media spectacle, and finally into myth. My work breaks new ground in mass communication studies by understanding this aesthetic and narrative process as mystification, a formulation I borrow from contemporary philosophers, particularly Cornel West. As an aesthetic process, mediated narration presents what the power brokers of a society deem desirable, while evacuating that which contradicts their ideological position. In this dissertation, I theorize this process in terms of “absenting” as a narrative process and “invisibilization” as an aesthetic maneuver. Aesthetic value undergirds the narration of the news by falsely presenting certainty and consensus to media prosumers. To accomplish this, I employ Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory to explain how news narration routinizes values of visibility, forming a discursive field that envelops the media prosumer. Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus best explains this theoretical field. An important implication of my work concerns the current obsession with “media literacy.” I argue that media literacy has not adequately explained the ideological nature of mediated narration, shifting the blame for a disinformation society from the structural forces of textual production onto a purportedly “illiterate” public. I destabilize the current understanding of media literacy by revealing the ideological implications of the aesthetic and narrative construction of what both practitioners and scholars of the news reduce to a binary notion of truths and falsehoods. The domain to which I apply this theoretical apparatus is the narration of majoritarian nationalism. Postcolonial governments use nationalism as an emotional trigger to co-opt their citizens into participating in the modernization project. Current institutions use rationality to showcase their nation as modern. The general narratives I have just described are in fact gleaned from three disturbing media events in recent India. My nation’s shift in recent years from a pluralistic democracy to a majoritarian, authoritarian state makes it a timely location for inquiry. In my three case studies, news narration showcases the desirable and hiding undesirable elements; depicts farmers in a negative light, as obstacles to modernization; and discredits resistant voices and deems them illegitimate individuals with smartphones or unethical practitioners of journalism. First, I analyze a media spectacle created in the city of Ahmedabad in 2020 by Narendra Modi’s government for Donald Trump’s visit. The government showcased this Potemkin Village as an example of the modernization project, a false construction that illuminates presentable elements of the city while walling off the unpresentable. I evaluate eight visual moments of this event and draw attention to the aesthetic facets of visibilization and invisibilization. Second, I examine narrative performances in a news-based television show anchored by Arnab Goswami, who analyzes murders involving politicians and farmers in a small rural road on which farmers marched and a convoy of vehicles led by the son of a central minister ran over them from behind, inviting retaliation. The aesthetic practices of this coverage destabilize in a chilling way who are the perpetrators and victims in these stories. In the third event, I analyze moments of journalistic struggle in a story of the police forcibly burning the body of a victim of gang-rape. Four men of an upper caste allegedly gang-raped a lower-caste woman in a village, and her dead body was brought back from a hospital in New Delhi. The media followed, and their cameras serendipitously captured the alleged destruction of evidence by the police. My dissertation concludes with questions about what cultural capital would be required in a world in which a media prosumer would be able to read and interpret the aesthetic and narrative presentation of such mass media objects. I conclude by understanding how the visibilized and invisibilized maneuvers of our current news media lead to the construction, not of media literacy, but instead, of “media illiteracy.” It is my theoretical conclusion that demystification is the best process to undo the debilitating effects of this dire situation. My dissertation ends with recommendations for completely transformed media literacy programs that deliver to communities, and specifically not individuals in a classroom, pedagogical tools rooted in critical theory.
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